Schools remain closed in Scotland as the coronavirus lockdown continues, however the First Minister has announced that a phased return for some pupils will begin on 22 February.
The decision to move away from in-person schooling during the pandemic has been a controversial one, with some parents and campaigners arguing that the impact of school closures on children’s development and mental health was too high.
One prominent group arguing for schools to be re-opened now is UsForThem, a parents’ group active on social media.
UsForThem launched in May 2020 and has campaigned for schools to remain open throughout the pandemic.
In an interview with The Herald newspaper on 24 January, UsForThem spokesperson Jo Bisset downplayed safety concerns in schools, saying social distancing was unnecessary.
Ferret Fact Service looked at this claim and found it to be Mostly False.
Schools in Scotland have been closed during the second lockdown, which began on 5 January 2021. This follows the closure of schools from the end of March until August 2020 during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
During these periods schooling was available in-person for the children of key workers.
Bisset’s claim is that there is no need for any social distancing in schools as “it isn’t a dangerous environment”.
How does Covid-19 affect children?
Children are at the lowest risk from Covid-19, with those aged up to 18 having lower rates of hospitalisation, severe hospitalisation and death from the virus.
The risk of a child becoming seriously ill from Covid-19 is very small.
However, they are susceptible to the virus and can pass it on. Evidence suggests that younger children are less susceptible to infection, and less likely to lead to further transmission of the virus than older age groups.
There is limited spread of the virus among primary school children, according to the latest evidence, while secondary school pupils appear to be more likely than primary school aged children to catch and pass on the virus.
The UK Government’s scientific advisors, Sage, found that the number of school-age children with Covid-19 had increased “significantly” during the second wave of the virus.
In the first term after schools reopened in Scotland between August and October last year, 1,621 positive tests were matched to school pupils, according to experimental data from Public Health Scotland. They also found that the weekly rate of positive cases increased in the latter weeks of the school term.
How much do schools drive the spread of Covid-19?
This is difficult to know. While young people in schools can get and transmit coronavirus, the extent to which this is driven by them being in school is not clear.
Sage has said it is still “difficult to quantify” how much transmission is taking place in schools compared to other places.
It is possible that infections in schools are reflecting wider trends in local areas.
Across the nine-week school term, the Public Health Scotland statistics found that 0.2 per cent of the pupil population tested positive for Covid-19.
It also appears, according to the data, that the schools where Covid-19 cases have been identified are concentrated in the areas most affected by the ‘second wave’, notably Lanarkshire and Greater Glasgow.
While there is no conclusive evidence that transmission in schools is a significant factor in Covid-19 outbreaks, evidence appears to suggest that transmission does take place in schools.
Did school closures reduce community transmission?
A study published in Science looking at non-pharmaceutical interventions on Covid-19 across 41 countries found that closure of schools and universities had a consistently “large effect” on the reproduction number (R rate) of the virus, however the study did not distinguish direct effects on transmission, so cannot prove that the two are connected directly.
A 2021 review of studies, not yet peer reviewed, into the impact of school closures found that “three studies, including the two at lowest risk of bias, reported no impact of school closures on Covid-19 transmission, whilst the other seven reported protective effects.”
What about the new Covid-19 variant?
It is possible that children are more susceptible to the newer variant of Covid-19, B.1.1.7.
Professor Neil Fergusson reported that during the second English lockdown in November 2020, there was “general shift in the distribution of the virus towards children” and that among those aged under 15 there were more cases of the new variant virus than the non-variant version.
Are school teachers at extra risk?
School teachers face some risk from contracting Covid-19 when working in schools, however it is not clear if they are at higher risk than other key workers.
Analysis by the Office for National Statistics in November 2020 did not find any evidence that teachers in England were more likely to get Covid-19 than other key worker professions.
A report from Public Health Scotland found that “following the re-opening of schools, teachers’ risk of testing positive was higher than the general population”. However, the report said that this may have been affected by higher rates of testing among teachers compared to other groups.
What about social distancing?
When schools re-opened in August 2020, the Scottish Government announced that social distancing would not be required for Primary school aged pupils, and that their scientific advice “makes clear” that social distancing pupils wasn’t required for a safe return to secondary schools. However, the guidance suggested that schools should take “practical, proportionate steps to encourage distancing”.
The guidance also advised other measures in Scottish schools such as additional cleaning, enhancing ventilation, limiting transfer of materials between home and school, measures to limit contact between classes and other teaching groups in school, and use of masks.
For staff, social distancing from fellow teachers and pupils was required, where possible.
The Scottish Government’s current guidance on Covid-19 safety in schools says: “Subject to continued suppression of the virus, and to surveillance and mitigations being in place, the balance of the evidence suggests that no distancing should be required between children in primary schools.”
It continues: “The evidence is less clear for older pupils but at present we support the same approach being taken in secondary schools on the basis of the balance of known risks”.
The guidance also states that distancing between pupils in secondary schools “may well” have contributed to low transmission rates in secondary schools during the August to October term.
Social distancing has proven to be effective at reducing the spread of Covid-19. Numerous studies have found it to have an impact in indoor situations, together with a range of other preventative measures such as mask-wearing and regular handwashing.
Schools adhered to many of these measures when they reopened after the first lockdown, and this may have reduced transmission in schools and the wider community.
Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly False
The claim that schools can reopen safely without any social distancing as they are not a dangerous environment is misleading. It is true that young people are likely to be less affected by Covid-19 than adults, but there is a definite risk of pupils passing on the virus. Social distancing has proven to be effective, and if practiced widely in schools could help to reduce the spread of the virus.
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Photo thanks to iStock/Jeff Kingma.